Wrong Direction Farm

At Long Last

Rachel started planting an orchard six years ago after I cleared the sumac and brush behind the house.  Our first crop of peaches are just ripening.  It has been a long wait for that first taste.  These peaches are a delight.

Shall I Eat a Peach

Do I dare to quote T.S. Eliot?

My Hay Habit

This year we’ll spend a little above $10,000 for hay for the cattle, not counting about $1500 for low-quality bedding hay for the pigs.  Unlike the chicken feed, which costs a few thousand bucks every month or two, the summer hay bills all hit at once.  Buying from neighbors adds a little cushion since everyone understands that we run short, but we don’t want to push the community line of credit too far either.  Robert Frost could have added “Good payments make good neighbors” to Mending Wall.  Shown above is a small portion of the hay we’re stockpiling for next winter.

One of the things I’ve tried over the last few years is planting annual grasses to allow us to supplement our summer grazing in order to stockpile for fall grazing.  In theory this cuts down hay bills.  In my limited experience, this just seems to add tractor work and seed bills.

This year I planted sorghum sudangrass.  It went in late due to a wet spring, so we got our first grazing this week.  Some spots were spectacularly deep green and four feet tall, but most of the field was just ankle high due to early summer flooding.  It seems that unless we had better soils (soils that could consistently worked earlier than mid-June as is the case here), we really shouldn’t be messing with annuals.  There are some years when annual crops could work well, but yields are so sporadic that many years I don’t think I’d come close to breaking even.  Two acres of sudangrass yielded two days of grazing for 49 head of cattle (calves, cows, and finishers).  I’ll get one more grazing before frost finishes it off.  For the cost of the seed and the time spent discing and planting, I’d be much better off with even a low-grade weedy pasture.  Still, this is a useful lesson to learn.  Everyone at all the grassfed conferences and magazines wants to promote cropping and “forage chains”, but it is helpful to try and to fail, so I can learn practically what this climate and geography can support.

Grazing Sorghum

Cattle starting to graze

Finished Sorghum

Same spot, the next day

Milk Bath

Even though the pigs have made some lovely mud wallows for cooling off on a summer’s day, this girl chose a dunk right in the drink trough.  This pig weighs in the high 300 pound range so she displaces a lot of liquid,  nearly causing it to overflow.  Today’s drink menu includes sour milk curds and whey. 

Remember that bit in Charlotte’s Web when they give Wilbur a scrubbing with buttermilk before going to the fair? Maybe this pig knows something about milk baths.  Or maybe it was just a convenient place to plop down. 

The Eggo Lego

While Rachel was busy washing eggs, the kids grew bored of labeling cartons and turned it into another Lego project.  Good thing those are all empty.

Grazing the Pigpen

Most years I allow the yard where the pigs spend the winter to grow up with whichever plants volunteers there.  Usually that includes pumpkins, butternut squashes, and tomatoes, along with a mess of weeds.  This year I hoped to plant an experimental crop of corn in there and let the pigs hog it down in the fall, but the wet spring didn’t allow that.  As a backup plan I broadcasted pearl millet and rape left over from last year’s pasture trials.

Despite the lack of soil preparation, the swampy conditions, and the depredations of foraging chickens, the millet took off and grew rapidly.  There were some areas where the thatch from feeding hay bales was too thick and a few mud puddles, but the rest of the yard quickly grew into a four-foot tall stand of high energy grass.  The Dwarf Essex rape didn’t grow so well, but the millet more than made up for that deficiency.

Cattle Entering Pig Yard

Bringing fifty head of cattle into a 30×70 yard means that it only provided a half hour of grazing, so of course this isn’t a serious feeding strategy as much as a measure for erosion control and for keeping the soil cycling rather than just concentrating nutrients.  I think better strategy would involve a high phosphorus demand grain crop to prevent long term phosphorus build-up in the soil, but I’ve never figured out how I would plant and manage a grain crop on this yard or if I could extract enough P to make a difference.  So my pig pen offseason management has room for improvement, but I’m glad to see some progress.

Grazing Aftermath

After they left…

Good Steaks, Bad Photography, Great Customers

Last week I grilled up a tri tip steak intending to do a write-up on this cut.  I tried photographing the process as I went through it, and as I did so I was amused at the difference between my photography and professional food photography.

The difference in the quality of the equipment is of course a factor.  But there’s also the setting.  I’m prepping the meal in a kitchen with late 1960s or early 70s orange Formica countertops and hacked up plastic cutting boards.  I’m grilling on a well-worn, trash-picked barbecue grill.  No complaints about any of the above; they work, they’re paid for, and they’ve proven their durability over decades.  But so much of food photography is aspirational, so the scene is more important than the food itself.  The steak must be presented on polished granite and gleaming stainless or else on artistically chipped ceramic plates with a distressed wood backdrop.

We can’t go the granite and stainless route, but we do have plenty of distressed surfaces around here and the kids have been making pottery plates and bowls, so we could make a good rustic presentation.  My problem is that I can’t muster the focus to cook something well and also to arrange it well.  I’d have to trim the meat on the old cutting board, then to transfer it to an oiled rustic board for a picture.  Then cook it on the grubby grill and place it onto a quirky old plate on a checkered gingham tablecloth for another picture.  That’s the sort of routine that flusters me and causes me to skip a step or to burn the meal while preparing the next photo.  I have accepted that most of my photography will not be aspirational, it will just be the best shot I can get, no matter if the Formica is showing.

We are trying to update the pictures on our online store, but it is slow going.  And it will never look as good as professionally photographed food.  But we are grateful for all our customers who have ordered from us for years, despite our pictures of wrapped, frozen meat.  We appreciate that you have more glamorous options available, but you continue to buy from us.

I think this gets at the core of our connection with our committed customers.  They select us over Whole Foods, Amazon, US Wellness Meats, or whatever box delivery service is trending, because they feel a connection to what we are doing and they accept that something done by a family is going to look and feel different than something presented by a marketing department at an investor-funded company.  That recognition adds a lot of forgiveness to the relationship.  We don’t intend to abuse that, but it is reassuring to know that our customers are willing to give us a break if the lighting isn’t right, if the photographs are blurry, or if we’re out of beef liver again (yeah, I know…).

Egg within an Egg

Harry was proud to show me his discovery: an egg within an egg. We’ve read about this before, and for years whenever we’ve found an especially large egg the kids have eagerly gathered round the skillet to see if we had a nested egg. This is the first one we’ve found.

This egg didn’t have a fully calcified coating on the second membrane so the outer layer broke on handling.  But it did have a separate yolk and albumen along with the inner egg. The inner egg turned out to be a relatively normal double-yolk egg.  Alas, no infinite egg recursion…

Double Yolk

Just a (relatively) normal double yolk egg on the inside.

The phenomena occurs when an egg moves backwards through a hen’s oviduct, causing the next egg being released to encompass the previous one.  In a typical situation hens release a yolk from the ovary, then it moves through stages of the oviduct, first being fertilized (if sperm is present), then it goes through a long passage where the albumen (the white of an egg) and the membranes are built, then it moves to a gland where the shell is formed.  After that, the egg normally is conveyed outward by peristalsis to be laid, but under rare circumstances the egg might move back upstream, encounter the next egg coming down, and become enclosed as a double egg.  The fact that the inner egg in this case was a double-yolker points to the likelihood that the large size caused a temporary blockage and led to this occurrence.

Burning Barn

I have been feeling a bit subdued today after watching a barn burn last night. It was located a fifteen minute drive from here, following a circuitous route across the Mohawk River, but only about three miles as the crow flies. From our hilltop there is a clear view to the farms on that side of the valley.

Word about town this morning was that neighbors were able to release the animals and move one tractor at substantial personal risk, but the large two story barn, all the hay, and several tractors and equipment were lost. That this happened with no loss of life or injury is a relief, but of course the effects will linger long for the family.  For all of us on the outside, it was a reminder that just a few minutes can flip one’s world upside down.

Among other things, I’ve been thinking about our farm’s vulnerability to catastrophe. Pasture-based operations have more resilience than confinement farms,  just because there are fewer single points of failure. And diverse farms have the protection offered by multiple enterprises, allowing one to go bust while another pulls through.

But those are rather weak consolations and only reassuring in abstraction.  As we grow, we put more inventory into our walk in freezers and coolers.  If we get the point of sustaining ourselves solely from the farm, I think we’ll need to have a bigger investment in a large refrigerated building.  So even though our livestock and our feed storage systems are relatively safe due to their dispersal, all the farm’s revenue depends on a concentrated, efficient, and vulnerable freezer/cooler/packing area.

A disaster mitigation plan would probably need to involve storing some part of our inventory elsewhere, especially in the fall when our seasonal beef and chicken butchering creates a peak in our storage requirements.  That is the rub, since the nearest freezer warehouse is an hour away and charges $50 per month per pallet.  Worse, that warehouse flooded a few weeks ago, so they probably aren’t a step-up in terms of protection.

I’m not sure what the best approach would be.  Our current policy on disaster preparedness is something on the lines of, “Let’s work harder and hope nothing bad happens.”  That actually sums up all our policies.  We focus so much on just trying to make the farm work that we really don’t put any consideration into making it last.


Up close. Image credit: Fort Plain Fire Department

Homegrown LSD

Got your attention?  Alright, we don’t have lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on the farm, but we do have its precursor, lysergic acid.  Deriving LSD isn’t easy, but Walter White could probably whip up a batch for us.  The acid is produced by the Ergot fungus that affects certain grain crops, particularly in wet years.  This summer has been a terrible one for incessant rain.  Corn crops were planted late, and many cornfields are sparse with skips all over the place due to flooding and/or planters plugging with mud.  Hay prices will be high, as many fields haven’t even received their first cut yet.  But one troubling consequence of the wet weather is toxic grain.

Ergot 1

Anyone trying to grow small grains this year (wheat, barley, rye, triticale) is having problems with Ergot infestations.  We don’t have any small grains planted, but we do have a few volunteer wheat, barley, and rye in the back fields, and they look awful.  Depending on the nutritionist, acceptable levels of ergot in livestock feed should be somewhere between one in one thousand and one in ten thousand kernels.  I’d estimate our rye and barley kernels are infected at the rate of one in a hundred.  Wheat kernels seem mostly clear of ergot, but there are a few discolored kernels so there are probably some other fungi at work.

A worthwhile side note:  Ergot is supposedly very common in all grasses, so it would seem that ruminants would be challenged by this in any grass that has gone to seed.  So far, I haven’t found any evidence of Ergot in our perennial grasses, so I wonder what makes them different.  Perhaps I’m not looking closely enough, but the cattle aren’t showing signs of ergot poisoning either, so it seems that our perennial grasses have some better immunity.  Chalk up another point for perennials over annuals.

Ergot has an interesting history.  It can be mildly psychoactive, but consuming it is also risky since it famously causes “Saint Anthony’s Fire”, a burning sensation accompanying decreased circulation in the extremities, leading to loss of limbs, gangrene, and other nastiness.  Ergot can also be used to induce strong uterine contractions to induce birth or to promote early abortion.  It also stops bleeding.  I’m pretty sure I remember Umberto Eco describing its use in medieval concoctions in one of his books, but Google searches are telling me I’m wrong.


I think this Caffeine-Ergot combination would be my drug of choice.  Get my caffeine buzz and acid trip at the same time…


Old School. From Science Museum, London

What to do?  Even though this is an extraordinarily wet year, we frequently have problems with Ergot and other mycotoxic infestations in cereal grain crops.  I don’t think we live in the right climate for wheat, barley, or rye.  The only good options are to grow grains that reliably produce in our climate (corn and oats can also be affected by mycotoxins, but they don’t seem to be as risky) and to keep working on more robust strains of these affected crops.  Since the latter option will take a long time and specialist knowledge, I have given up on trying to source locally or regionally grown organic wheat, barley, and rye.  Our rations for the chickens and for the pigs (when they get grain at all) only include corn and oats as the cereal grains.  I’d love to have a source for pesticide/fungicide free barley, but it just doesn’t seem possible in NY at present.  But who knows…  Bad years for crops are good years for plant breeders looking for specimens that produce well despite the challenging conditions.  Perhaps this rainy year will give us the next big breakthrough in fungus-resistant cultivars.


Cottage Bacon

We added a new member to our bacon family.  This week we received our first batch of Cottage Bacon back from the smokehouse.  It is a cured pork shoulder (Boston Butt to be precise) that has been smoked and sliced.  Cooking in a skillet is fast and easy, just like bacon, but this is a meatier cut, so the pieces taste somewhere between bacon and fried ham.  Needless to say, we like it.

It can make a great accompaniment to a breakfast, but also try it as a BLT sandwich variant.

Get it while you can.  I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do big runs of Cottage Bacon consistently because the Butt is such a popular primal (we also use that same cut for blade steaks, country ribs, and Butt roasts) that we have a hard time keeping enough in stock.